Language Power Struggles

The idea of the “linguistic power struggle” is one I’ve been dealing with and thinking about for a long time. I’ve made some attempts to find scholarly research on the subject, looking into discourse analysis (which is often concerned with power), expectancy violations theory, and communication accommodation theory, but so far I’ve turned up very little (even outside of Wikipedia!). Thus the discussion which follows will be mostly descriptive and anecdotal, but will raise more questions than it answers.

First, a typical example of the language power struggle. The dialog below is taken from a ChinesePod lesson aptly titled Language Power Struggle. I directed the creation of this fictional dialog two years ago, drawing on my own real experiences and those of other friends in China. The content in square brackets [like this] is a translation of the original Chinese. Note that the Chinese person speaks mostly English, while the American speaks only Chinese.

American: [Hello, can I sit here?]

Chinese: Sure, nice to meet you.

American: [I’m also really glad to meet you.]

Chinese: Your Chinese is very good.

American: [Not at all!]

Chinese: How long have you been to China?

American: [I’ve been in China for more than two years. I’m studying Chinese.]

Chinese: Oh, you are learning Chinese?

American: [I want to work in China, so I need to learn Chinese.]

Chinese: Oh. I think Chinese is very difficult for you. How do you feel this bar?

American: [It’s not bad. It’s just that nobody will speak Chinese with me, so I’m a little disappointed.]

Chinese: Ha ha! You are very serious!

American: [Because I want to practice more, so that I can learn Chinese more quickly.]

Chinese: I want to practice English. In Chinese, we say “[learn from each other]”, you know?

American: [I know. But in China we should be speaking Chinese.]

Chinese: I like talking English with you.

American: [Heh heh, then you should go to America. I came to China just to learn Chinese.]

Chinese: I want to go to America. Let’s be friends. Can you give me your mobile number?

American: [Sorry, I’ve got to go.]

The root of the conflict is quite clear: the American guy wants to speak Chinese, while the Chinese guy wants to speak English. There are quite a few issues contained within this small dialog, though. Below I’ll get into more details.


At the heart of the struggle is expectations. Each party has an idea in his mind about what language the other party should be speaking in that exchange of information we call communication. I’m going to split these expectations into two groups: pre-contact expectations and post-contact expectations.

Pre-contact expectations are a big, messy bag of preconceived notions about people. These include sweeping generalizations such as “foreigners can’t learn Chinese” or “there’s no way this Chinese farmer can speak English.” These are important, because before either party opens his mouth, they’re informing choice of language for the exchange. These pre-contact expectations include:

  • nationality and ethnicity
  • cultural and social background
  • age and gender
  • education and social status
  • job or social role
  • current geographical position (China, USA, etc.)
  • current setting (classroom, coffee shop, etc.)

So, to give a example, when a 50-year-old African businessman walks into McDonalds in Shanghai and there’s an 18-year-old Han Chinese girl behind the counter, there are going to be certain expectations in the minds of each person even before any words are spoken.

Post-contact expectations are established after words are spoken. For the most part, these depend upon actual proficiency in the language spoken, but also upon perceived proficiency. Perceived proficiency can be powerfully affected by “psychological blocks” if one person gets it in his head that “there’s no way this guy is actually speaking to me in language x.” Thus, post-contact expectations should logically supersede pre-contact expectations, but there are some cases when they do not. Below, I’ll talk about the first case, and how these expectations tend to naturally coalesce into something very much like rules.

“Rules” for Determining Language

Within several sentences, must of us can make a judgment about the linguistic aptitude of another person, especially when that person is a non-native speaker of our own mother tongue. With our every utterance, every ill-chosen article, every mispronounced “th,” every inaccurate tone, every rogue particle 了 serves as evidence. It’s a good thing the judgment tends to be quick, because in most cases we would rather communicate information efficiently than waste time debating over choice of language. But in cases where both parties share more than one language in common (native or otherwise), how do they determine which language to use for communication?

This doesn’t seem terribly complicated. Below are some sample situations. Which language do you think would be chosen for communication in each case?

Although there’s no strict right or wrong here, I think that for each case there is an answer which is most likely:

  1. Case 1 (Native Chinese, very poor English vs. Native English, very poor Chinese): Since neither side speaks the other’s language passably, you’re probably going to have a lot of one-word utterances, miscommunications, and hand gestures. (Communication FAIL!)

  2. Case 2 (Native Chinese, native-like English vs. Native English, native-like Chinese):Since both sides are bilingual, they feel comfortable in either English or Chinese, so you’re probably going to see both, most likely with a healthy dose of code-switching.

  3. Case 3 (Native Chinese, decent English vs. Native English, basic Chinese): The Chinese speaker’s English is functional, while the American’s Chinese is quite basic. It would be unnecessarily painful to communicate in Chinese, so in the interest of efficiency, both sides will likely speak English.

  4. Case 4 (Native Chinese, decent English vs. Native English, decent Chinese): In this case we’ve got two students (highly motivated to improve proficiency) of roughly equal levels of Chinese and English. The scene is set for a classic language struggle (similar to the dialog above). Assuming both sides engage, the outcome is uncertain, and will probably be determined by the personalities and willpower of the two speakers.

  5. Case 5 (Native Chinese, decent English, basic French vs. Native French, good English, no Chinese): Here we add in French. Note that in this case, mother tongue is irrelevant. Since neither side speaks the other’s mother tongue passably, the clear choice is English.

  6. Case 6 (Native Chinese, excellent Japanese, good German, pretty good English, poor French vs. Native French, very good English, good German, basic Japanese, no Chinese): This complex situation is definitely not something you see every day. It would take some time for both sides to even discover all the languages the other side speaks. Assuming that they know, however, the choices come down to English and German. While either outcome is possible, I believe that German is the more likely choice. This is because the Chinese speaker gains significantly, and the disparity between the two speakers’ levels disappears. If either speaker is self-conscious about making mistakes, they will feel less so when talking with a partner making a lot of the same mistakes.

So what’s the general rule here? It goes something like this:

Given a conscious choice between a number of languages to use for interaction, speakers will naturally tend to choose the common language in which the poorer speaker’s level is highest.

Learners of Chinese in China should take special note here: if your Chinese is still at the Elementary level, but you’re trying to practice Chinese with relatively fluent speakers of English (see Case 3, above), the deck is stacked against you. You’re fighting the natural tendency.

Violations of the Rules

The existence of a “natural rule” founded in efficiency can explain a few things. It explains why, even though you really want to improve your Chinese, you never mind speaking in English to your friend that studied in the States for 8 years. His English is just too good, and it feels silly to speak in Chinese. It also explains why you, having learned Chinese in China for three years, feel especially frustrated by food servers who refuse to speak to you in Chinese even though their English is barely intelligible. When people wantonly break the rule, the interaction becomes weird and frustrating.

Have you ever witnessed a situation like the dialog above, where the Chinese side insisted on speaking English, and the English-speaking side stubbornly stuck to its guns and spoke only Chinese? It’s weird. It’s awkward. And it’s fairly common in China. The participants in a struggle like this are not interested in efficiency of communication, they’re merely seeking to win a battle of wills.

There are other reasons speakers break the rule, though. One oft-cited example refers to the original situation in which two people (especially lovers) met. Even if the non-native speaker’s Chinese is quite good now, if when the couple first met they always spoke in English, then it will be hard to break out of that pattern. And it could even be a little dangerous for the relationship to try to do so.

One very obvious “rule breaker” in China is your average Chinese teacher. The teacher likely speaks at least decent English, and perhaps excellent English, but both teacher and (beginning) student agree to sacrifice efficiency for the sake of learning.

In what other situations is this rule broken, and with what result?

Playing the Game by the Rules

I don’t know about you, but I try not to make efficiency my enemy. When I discovered the rule of the language power struggle on my own, I came to a conclusion: if I want to improve my Chinese without all this strife, I need to find Chinese speakers with English worse than my Chinese. It worked. I definitely recommend this approach to frustrated learners of Chinese in China. You’re much better off spending your energy on struggling to understand the speech of old people or somewhat non-standard speakers than on refusing to break down and speak English.

The rule also has an implication on pedagogy, and it’s something that good teachers know instinctively: don’t let your students know the full extent of your mastery of their language. It’s not in the student’s best interest. If your level is high enough that no English is needed for your teacher to teach you Chinese, then you’re better off not knowing how fluent your teacher’s English is. A big part of this is perception, and if the student perceives his teacher’s English level as lower than it actually is, the language power struggle rule will actually drive him to naturally use Chinese for the sake of efficiency. This is a principle which I believe is poorly understood and under-utilized in China. I take special care to train all the tutors at AllSet Learning on this principle.


I believe that engaging in language power struggles, while interesting, is a waste of time. It’s best to understand them, but then to avoid them. Several interesting facts arose from the talk I gave about language power struggles at Xindanwei:

  • Many foreigners studying in China are very aware of the phenomenon, and can almost always provide multiple examples from their own lives
  • The average Chinese person seems mostly, if not totally, unaware of the phenomenon (certainly no one said, “ha ha, I used to do that to the foreign teachers at my university all the time!”)
  • The topic tends to spark discussion among the Chinese about code-switching and “dialect” (which can go way beyond regional variation when used in the Chinese “topolect” sense), which is related, but not the same thing

Again, it would be great if anyone knows of any scholarly research on this subject, or if some intrepid researcher would like to do a study on it.

Please, share your stories, you comments, and your emotional reactions. Let’s bring this silent struggle to light.

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